Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Death, Taxes and Climate Change

Nothing is certain, we often hear, except death and taxes. But a third certainty appears to be joining them: climate change. Last month the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, concluding with 95% confidence that humans are the primary cause of climate change. That percentage of certainty lies between the percentage of wins of the All Blacks over Argentina (94.44%)* and over Ireland (96.30%)*.

From this perspective, it appears that the experts – scientists who have studied the climate for decades and whose reports are subject to strict peer review – believe that it is more likely that humanity has changed the world’s climate than that New Zealand will defeat Argentina in a rugby test. But you don’t need to be an expert to know the A.B.s will beat the Pumas, the average punter can tell you that.

I reckon the average punter can also tell you that ‘the weather’ has changed over their lifetime. Talk to anyone in Whanganui and they are likely to say, “The winters/summers used to be colder/warmer, wetter/drier when they were a kid.”

It’s important here to clarify the difference between weather and climate. Weather is what we experience day-to-day, and climate represents overall long term trends. But starting about two years ago, a trickle of long-term research studies emerged indicating an increasing incidence of extreme weather events. Now that trickle has turned into a flood, as more and more data confirms the findings of the earlier reports.

What all of this means is that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – floods, drought, storms – has increased over the last half century and the trend is likely to continue. New Zealand is no stranger to floods, drought and storms. The good news is that we’re used to extreme weather. But the bad news is that our primary industries rely on weather, and that many of our cities are located along rivers or along the coast.

Whanganui has the distinction of including both a river and a coastline. Many in our community consider these to be our greatest assets. I agree. But, if you believe the climate experts, they are also our greatest liabilities. This was made patently obvious recently when the river reminded us of its power to overwhelm.

Less obvious to most members of our community were the high winds and powerful waves along our coast. In my regular weekly column for the Chronicle, I recently pointed out the paradox of moving wind-blown sand at Castlecliff Beach with a diesel-fueled excavator earlier this spring. In other words, the ‘solution’ makes the ‘problem’ worse, and after two weeks of wind the sand was all back in the same place. This week the excavator was back, but stopped after doing only half the job. Does the image of Don Quixote come to mind?

In addition to the paradox mentioned above is our municipal debt, which, like the problem of climate change, is large and growing. As we have seen in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Detroit, the higher debt becomes, the more taxes/rates go to debt repayment instead of services for citizens. In fact, we see this in Wanganui as well, but you only need to have followed the recent mayoral race to know there are vastly different opinions on this issue.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that we are facing two inevitabilities regarding Castlecliff Beach: 1) increasingly strong winds moving sand from the beach to the car park; and, 2) our decreasing ability to pay for the removal of the sand.

I would say with 95% certainty that one day in the future the practice of hiring heavy equipment to shuffle sand around Castlecliff Beach will cease. It may happen sooner or it may happen later. If it happens later, we will have spent a lot of money ‘running in place’. Striving to maintain the status quo in a changing world is expensive.

The situation is made worse by simple bad design that ignores the laws of nature. The lower car park, Surf Lifesaving Club building, and Duncan Pavilion were built where nature wants a sand dune. Come hell or high water (we’re likely to see at least one of those) nature will not stop until she has a sand dune where she wants a sand dune.

Good design is eco-design. Eco-design always works with nature, not against it. Good eco-design would never have allowed this to happen in the first place. But that was long ago when diesel was cheap, ‘global warming’ was a developing theory, and Wanganui may have been flush with funds.

The only constant, we often hear, is change. And things have changed. If we do not change with them we’re likely to go the way of the dinosaurs – fossils if not fossil fuels!

So the question is obvious: how do we deal with the bad design left by our forbearers? For me the only reasonable answer is the eco-thrifty one. In other words, one that would both respect nature and save money. I know this is not a popular way of thinking among some circles in our community, but then again there are also climate change deniers among us.

This is a first draft idea, so please bear with me. I suggest abandoning the bottom tier of the car park as the first stage of a ‘managed retreat’ (sound familiar?). There are a massive number of parking spaces at the beach and playground, and I reckon less than half are occupied 99.999% of the time. Why fight nature and waste rates trying to keep them all open nearly all the time?

As a general rule, people who go to Castlecliff Beach are fit enough to walk 40 – 60 metres - depending on the tide - to get to the water. Abandoning the lower car park would only add 20 metres to the walk. The money saved by no longer ‘working against nature’ could be used to manage an intelligent, staged retreat.

As part of the managed retreat, I think it would be worth taking efforts to protect Duncan Pavilion. The building is elevated and would not be overwhelmed by drifting sand, most of which would accumulate behind it. Additionally, Project Castlecliff has made a great effort lately of renovating the ‘Pav’, and holding community events there. Good on them!

But the Surf Lifesaving Club building appears abandoned and neglected. Guttering has been sagging for years, and water damage is obvious. There is no indication that funds have been allocated for the proper care of this building. As such, tough questions may need to be asked about its future.

As an eco-design consultant, this is the type of advice I would normally offer a client at my standard hourly rate. But in this case I’m offering it for free. As such, it will surely be ignored.

* Source: http://stats.allblacks.com/

Thursday, October 24, 2013

More on Protecting Wood from Water

It seems every week we hear of another extreme weather event somewhere in the world: a cyclone in India; a heat wave in Europe; a 1,000-year flood in Colorado. Imagine what a 1,000-year flood would do to Whanganui!

Whanganui River at 30-year flood stage. 

Closer to home, New Zealand has experienced gale southerlies and gale northerlies in the course of about a week. Canterbury was hammered and the Wellington airport closed. In Castlecliff, sand has overtopped the barriers just weeks after Council hired a giant digger to clear them.

Earlier this month I watched the digger off and on over a couple of days moving sand scoop by scoop as far as its arm could reach from the barrier toward the sea. The repetitive process, powered by diesel, went on hour after hour: scoop and dump, scoop and dump, scoop and dump.

It was all undone by two storms over a fortnight – all that diesel and all those rates gone. Up in smoke. Blown away. There is no indication the work was ever done.

The obvious paradox here is that we use diesel fuel for a job that is made more difficult to do because we’ve burned diesel fuel. In other words, climate scientists tell us that extreme weather events are occurring more often because we’ve burned such a large quantity of fossil fuels already. And then to clean up after the extreme weather events we burn more fossil fuels. Some people would describe this as a vicious cycle or a downward spiral.

It’s interesting that the global dialogue around climate change have shifted from prevention to adaptation. Put another way, “We can’t agree to efforts to stop it, so we better brace ourselves.” This is sad in a way because it appears to indicate an inability of nations to work together toward a common goal. Instead, it’s everyone for themselves.

From this perspective, it’s important that home-owners do their best to prevent damage from wind and rain on their properties. Last week I wrote about protecting wooden structures from water damage, and particularly wind-blown rain that can find its way into walls due to inadequate flashing and detailing. I’ve spent many hours making scribers for our home, as shown in last week’s pictures. You may or may not recall that I also emphasized priming the backside of each scriber as well as the end grain top and bottom.

End grain exposed to rain. 

The end grain of timber is vulnerable to penetration by water because that it is what it is meant to do. Xylem and phloem – remember biology class? – facilitate the movement of water and nutrients up and down through a living tree. When that tree is felled and turned into lumber, the xylem and phloem make it vulnerable to water damage. This is particularly evident with timber fences where the end grain is exposed directly to falling rain.

Fence without capping. 

Capping is used to cover the end grain and to extend the life of timber fences. It is reasonably priced and highly recommended. 

Fence with capping.

Because I made fences from a former deck, I was not able to buy capping. I had to make my own.

Using vintage 4-by-2s, I ripped five grooves down the middle of each one. Watch out for nails! I wrecked one saw blade in the process. Then I used a two-inch chisel to clear out the channel. 

The job took longer than I expected, but the result looks tidy and will extend the life of our fences for many years to come...so long as they don’t get toppled in the next big blow!

Peace, Estwing

Monday, October 21, 2013

Another Late Spring Update

Last week I posted a spring update on our permaculture installation. I was in a hurry, and neglected to include some other worthy botanical happenings on our section.

Tamarillo ready to blossom despite all the resent wind. 

Grapes very active after a long winter's nap. 

First strawberries.

This is a white strawberry we got from a friend in Hamilton.

Raspberries forming.

Happy cat.

Early apples have formed. These will need to be thinned from 5 to 2.

Figs don't mind the winds.

Early tomatoes in a sheltered spot. We had ripe fruit last year before Christmas.

Tomatoes are blossoming. 

We got these strawberry plants from local friends. Very cool pink blossoms.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, October 18, 2013

Keeping Timber Homes Dry Means Attention to Detail

Few things discourage me more than an All Blacks loss or a poorly designed wastewater treatment plant than seeing preventable water damage to a timber framed home. As a lover of old homes, I know that water is the ultimate enemy of wood, and all efforts should be taken to exclude water from direct contact with timber. These efforts include both proper flashing and sealing of the exterior skin of a structure, and adequate splash backs and sealing around interior plumbing. In both cases, hundreds spent on prevention will save thousands in repair bills.

Repair to rotted corner boards.  

In my opinion, this is one of the major strengths of the New Zealand Building Code, brought on with all likelihood in response to the legacy of Leaky Homes. During our renovation, the building inspector was very strict about ensuring a completely waterproof shell, and rightly so. I’ve written before that the most sustainable home is the one that does not fall down in an earthquake, burn down in a fire, or rot from water damage. These are three of the major emphases of the Building Code, and I think building inspectors provide a valuable service in making sure these high standards are adhered to.

As a DIYer, I also benefited from some of the ‘tricks-of-the-trade’ advice offered by our building inspector on some of his visits. I know for a fact that our home is more durable because our inspector did his job properly. Mind you, building consents are by no means cheap, but I believe they will pay for themselves eventually either in terms of the long-term durability of the structure or in the resale value, as a complete inspection comes with a Code Certificate of Compliance.

Flashing a sill.  

All of that said, there appears to be an abundance of homes slowly rotting away across Castlecliff and Gonville. I’m not saying that these are the only suburbs with disintegrating housing, but these are the neighbourhoods I frequent. Often times while riding my bicycle from my home near the river mouth to centre city, I toodle along looking at houses. I am particularly drawn to very good design and detailing and very bad design and detailing. I am, however, aware that toodling along on a bicycle staring at houses can be mis-interpreted as “casing the joint.” I swear I am not a burglar, just obsessed with water damage.

I’ll say this again because it is so important: spending hundreds on preventing water damage will save thousands in repair bills. It is exactly like changing engine oil regularly – paying a little saves a lot. Same goes for insulation!

So, if you are the owner of an old, timber home, and particularly if you are a landlord who owns many old, timber homes, please have a look at your properties and check the flashing around doors and windows, as well as the external corners. You’ll see in the photos an example of the many scribers I made to seal our home against wind-blown rain. 

Making and painting scribers.

The scribers pictured are made from treated pine that was cut with a jig saw, primed on both sides and the ends, and then painted twice before nailing in place.

Scribers in place.  

Also pictured are some details of a repair job done to my parents’ home (built in 1828) near Boston. You can see that the four lowest weatherboards (we call them clapboards in New England) have been replaced on the left, along with the bottom portion of both corner boards. 

Rotten wood has been replaced, and flashing added. 

Additionally, a new flashing was added at the bottom to protect the sill. Although this repair job cost thousands of U.S. dollars, the builder did a good job to prevent this type of water damage happening again. 

Peace, Estwing

Monday, October 14, 2013

Spring Permaculture Update

Nearly three years into our project, we have reached a point where the permaculture installation is more mature than immature. In other words, all the trees are planted and most of them are fruiting this year. Additionally, the annual beds are pumping out the last bits of winter crop and transitioning to summer crops.

Thousands of plums

Apple blossoms



New guava growth

Orange blossoms



Black boy peaches. Yum!


Garlic. Yum!



Courgettes in the ground.

Plenty of tomatoes in the ground too. 
Peace, Estwing

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reduce, REUSE, Recycle

Congratulations to Sustainable Whanganui Trust on their new office and “Reuse Academy” located at the Resource Recovery Centre. The Trust has stepped up their visibility from the previous location in Wicksteed Street, and also expanded their opening hours to welcome any drop-in visitors as members of our community make their way to the new recycling facility.

Reuse! Yah! 

Additionally, Sustainable Whanganui has begun its events programme with a pair of fun school holiday “Blo-Cart” workshops. I was lucky enough to have been invited to join in the fun, along with my solar cooker and a pan full of sausages. There was fierce building, racing, refining designs, more racing, and, finally, a good feed. Smiles and laughter filled the Reuse Academy, along with learning about materials strength, centre of gravity, friction, and the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Once upon a time, a wise person thoughtfully placed the R’s in this order, which represents their importance regarding overall impact on the environment. Think of them as gold, silver and bronze. But as elusive as a gold medal at the Olympics, convincing human beings to reduce their consumption is no easy task. The citizens of many wealthy nations such as New Zealand are called “Consumers”, and billions of dollars are spent annually to keep us buying, even to the point of falling deeply into debt.

When considering the major cultural emphasis on consumerism, addressing the second two R’s is much easier at present. Regarding recycling, this is all I’ll say: If you are not recycling, you are throwing money away.

But for those who already recycle, but are not ready to make the step to reduction, reuse may be a natural step toward an eco-thrifty lifestyle. As Greenie Goldilocks might say, “Recycling is too easy and reducing is too hard, but reusing in just right.”

For me, reusing is the most engaging of mind, body and spirit. In other words, creative reuse requires thinking alongside physical work, and when I have finished a great reuse project I feel good about what I’ve done while maintaining a small ecological footprint.

Additionally, my wife and I are frenquenters of Whanganui’s Church of Reuse, aka Hayward’s Auctions. Father Brian preaches the good word of reuse every Thursday evening to a congregation that consists of the long-time faithful as well as recent converts. Hands are raised in jubilant affirmation of the good word: reuse!

While I won’t divulge all my auction strategies – because all y’all represent potential opponents – I will share two pieces of advice. First, never underestimate the power of a coat of paint. 

Pictured is a solid wood chest we got from Hayward’s for under $20. The night it caught my eye, it was poorly stained a brownish color and was full of spider webs. With a little vision and some paint left over from another project, the chest is now a highly functional element of our front porch. I use it to store empty egg cartons, jam and honey jars to return to the Saturday market, and to sit on and enjoy a beer after a long day of creative reusing.

My other auction advice is be prepared to pay good money for a keystone design element. For example, some long-time readers will recall when Terry Lobb and I swapped columns and she wrote about our kitchen renovation, highlighting the leadlight cabinet doors we got from Hayward’s. Another example is the rooster doorbell pictured. It tells visitors something about us before we’ve even opened the door – at heart we are country folk even though we live in a “Suburb with a holiday lifestyle.”

Friday, October 4, 2013

Reviving Old Windows...following an observation about our Council

Before I get started this week, I am wondering: Are the environment and sustainability dirty words in Whanganui?

Exercising my duty as a member of a democracy, I carefully read the Candidate Information booklet I received in the post. Among the candidates for mayor and councillor, there was nary a mention of any type of commitment to sustainability, save for one candidate’s mention of “a reduce, reuse, recycle and reinvigourate mantra.” I like it, Mr. Keating, but what about the others?

Additionally, every mention I have seen of the new Resource Recovery Centre has emphasized the point that it was built at no expense to ratepayers. I may be different, but I consider waste minimization and recycling one of the highest and best uses of my rates – much preferable to some of the ill-conceived ways my rates have been spent. Is there such fear of eco-backlash in our community that it forces Council to go to lengths to distance itself from any apparent commitment to strong sustainability? Personally, I have received nothing but positive feedback on my column from a wide cross-section of our community. Additionally, good data exists indicating that Whanganui could save itself millions per year in energy savings while creating jobs. So, I’m left to ask: What gives?

Last week I asked readers to share their original ideas and/or success stories of implementing ideas from this column or from Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training) for making homes warmer, dryer and healthier. If you have been meaning to do so but have not done so, please do so!

I appreciate readers’ patience over the last three weeks, as this column has been more about eco-design thinking than the nuts and bolts of DIY. I try to strike a balance between the two. This week we are back to the practical, hands-on nature of eco-thrifty home renovation.

The day we bought the villa in 2010, there were few windows unbroken. Of those, we found an interesting scalloped green glass window in its original frame sitting in what was the kitchen. From all appearances, the villa was in the midst of multiple initiated and abandoned reno projects. Apparently, someone had removed this window from the wall where it had been and placed it in the kitchen – for safe keeping?

We thought the window was original to the villa because it had the distinctive purple and yellow colour scheme found throughout. (Eat your heart out, Terry Lobb!) As such, we wanted to integrate the window into our renovation, but where? Truth be told, my wife was against the idea, so I waited until she went to the states for a wedding and did the project in her absence.

When dealing with second-hand building materials, it is best to take caution when dealing to paint (potentially lead-based) and when cutting wood that may harbor hidden nails. In this case, I used a second XV saw blade and kept a vacuum at the ready for Hoovering up paint chips. Oh, and eye, ear, nose protection.

The window frame would have originally fit into a wall framed with 100 mm studs but the wall into which I was inserting it had been rebuilt by a mysterious previous owner using 90 mm studs. Using my back-up saw and a grunty blade, I ripped 10 mm off the frame – finding a few nails in the process.

Next, I scraped and sanded the loose and flaking paint, and vacuumed up the dust immediately. While the frame was on the ground, I primed it thoroughly before adding two coats of paint. Finally, I set the window in place, trimmed it out, and flashed it. And guess what…the wife liked it.



Peace, Estwing